11490 words, novelette
Mama was the very best torturer in all the Three Valleys. Everybody said so. Torturer means somebody who’s good at making you tell secrets, even when you don’t want to. It’s hard to lie to Mama. So I know she’s really good at her job.
Even the king up in Grayfall knew Mama was the best. He probably had his own torturer, because a king has everything, but who was it getting brought in the fancy cart all the way up the highroad whenever the king had a secret-keeper in his jail? You guess who.
I don’t know why Mama didn’t want to move to Grayfall. We spent so much time going back and forth, Sunrise to Grayfall along the highroad and back. The first time in the cart was okay, sitting on the soft seats with Mama, looking out the windows, playing I Spy and Count the Fires and Who Can Hold Their Breath the Longest, but on the way home it was already getting boring, and Mama said there’d be lots of next times after that, a job’s a job, so I better just get used to it.
Deep down I didn’t want to move to Grayfall either, not really. I liked it in Sunrise. Even if there was no king and no fancy cart and no kingsguard bringing me blackberry pastries from the castle kitchen while Mama was off working. In Sunrise we had our very own house, just me and Mama, with our very own mint plant and our very own tree, with a swing on the low branch that’s the perfect height for me and I didn’t have to share it with anyone.
But the best part about Sunrise was the giants. Sometimes for Mama’s work she puts a secret-keeper’s feet into a box of stones and makes them stand in the river with just their face sticking out until they tell her all the secrets the king wants to know. These two giants have their feet stuck in the earth pretty much exactly like that, their heads tilted back in just the same way, the Waste drifting up around their ankles like snow. The rest of their bodies are rusty like an old knife and you can’t really tell what they used to look like, but I like how the highroad to Sunrise runs between them and you can look up and imagine that they were in the middle of play-fighting like me and Jamie sometimes do when our chores are done and somebody said FREEZE and so they froze there, one of them grabbing the other one’s fists in midair.
Jamie’s dad says the giants are old old magic. Older than any house in Sunrise. Older than the castle in Grayfall. Older than the highroad, which is so old it’s mostly gone in places and workers have to go out with flat rocks to patch up the places where the road disappears and it’s just Waste where the road should be. Older even than the Grayfall songkeeper, who’s so old her face looks like a dried apple with no juice left in it at all.
One time Mama tried to scare me, said the giants move while we’re asleep, they go around town and peek into the houses with their windowy eyes, but I know that’s not true. It’s a lie, but not the bad kind. The giants are there to protect Sunrise with their old magic. You learn that from little. You put your hands like this and say GIANTS WATCH OVER ME IN ALL MY ENDEAVORS and they do. Endeavors means stuff you want the giants to watch you do and make sure you do a good job and nothing bad happens.
But the giants can’t watch the whole long highroad, so how can they protect you if they can’t see you?
We went to Grayfall thirteen times, me and Mama. But we only came back twelve.
Mama says there are bad parts in every story. Scary parts. Sad parts. If it was happy and fun all the time, it wouldn’t be like life, so it wouldn’t be a good story.
Fires in the Waste means traders or scav armies, Mama says. A cookfire makes smoke, and that could be anybody, but scav army raiders burn their dead to Carrion Boy, and that smoke looks pretty much the same from far away. And you don’t know what kind of fire it is until it’s too late.
Here’s what Mama taught me to do. Hold out your arm as long as it goes, make a fist, then stick out your thumb. If the smoke from the fire is wider than your thumb, that means Stay Off the Road, Somebody’s Close. Same if there are lots of little fires all together. Same if you’re by yourself alone on the highroad, even if there’s zero fires you can see.
The day the scav army raiders got us coming back down the highroad from Grayfall was a zero-fires day. I don’t know what happened, I was asleep on Mama’s shoulder in the fancy cart, having a bad dream about big dogs chasing me, and then when I woke up I was sitting in a scorchweed bush beside the road and my shoulder hurt and the leftover blackberry pastry I was saving in my pocket for Jamie was all mashed up against my leg and I didn’t know why I wasn’t in the cart anymore.
I wasn’t in the cart anymore because it was lying on its side in the middle of the road, three raiders poking around in the guts of it. They took out Mama’s big orange work bag and my blue backpack. I wanted to yell at them for taking our stuff, but then I saw that one of the raiders was dragging the cart driver out of his seat and tying his hands together. His face was all bloody, and seeing that made my voice dry up in my mouth.
I looked at the cart again. Half of Mama was lying next to it. Something happened to my eyes when I saw that—everything went all white and sparkly for a second—but then the sparkles melted away and a raider was pulling Mama’s arms and she wasn’t cut in half at all, just her legs were stuck under the cart. But really stuck, I guess, because when he pulled she screamed. It was the first time I ever heard Mama scream. Also the last. She didn’t sound scared though, just really, really mad.
“You stupid fucking slag-for-brains,” she yelled at the raider. “Do you KNOW WHO I—”
That surprised me even through my scaredness because I’d never heard Mama use words like that before. I was saying STUPID FUCKING SLAG-FOR-BRAINS to myself in my mind when Mama’s eyes landed on me, and she looked pretty surprised to see me there in that scorchweed bush. I guess she’d thought the other raiders already got me, because something happened in her face, something sad and happy both at the same time. She did the thing with her eyes that means Listen To Me Right Now Or You Will Be Sorry Indeed and shaped her mouth like the word RUN except no sound came out.
But I didn’t want to RUN. I wanted Mama. We should have moved to Grayfall. Then I’d be safe eating blackberry pastries, watching Mama sharpen her work-knives until they were shiny like stars, instead of sitting in this poky bush with my shoulder hurting and some stupid fucking slag-for-brains stealing my blue bag.
I made a face at Mama that meant No I Will Not, Come Over Here And Make Me, and I turned my heart into a stone too heavy to be moved, no matter what face she made back at me.
Instead she waited until the raider stopped pulling her arms again. Then she took his knife out of his boot and stuck it into his leg and he fell over, screaming and kicking at Mama with his good foot. Mama pushed herself partway up onto her elbows and threw the knife toward me. It landed next to my scorchweed bush. I knew she wanted me to take it and run away before the raiders saw me, but my body wouldn’t work. Then the man’s foot kicked hard across Mama’s face and she made a little noise and fainted. Fainted means your brain goes to sleep for a little while. I see people faint all the time when Mama works, but none of those people have been Mama before now. I knew it was just that she fainted and not died because Mama would never die and leave me here alone.
The fainting part still scared me, but it made me mad too. Nobody kicks my Mama. I don’t remember getting out of the scorchweed bush, or picking up the knife, just the way the world was going dark around the edges like I couldn’t see right and be this mad both at the same time. But I guess I picked it up because the next thing I knew there was a raider taking it out of my hand and another raider picking me up by my feet and I swung through the air like on my tree swing but not really like that at all and then I heard a loud bang and everything went dark.
I want to say I woke up and it was all a dream, but instead I woke up because somebody was shaking me and kind of whisper-yelling KID, HEY KID, ARE YOU ALIVE and I wanted to say my name’s not KID, it’s ANEKO but when I tried to move my mouth it hurt so much the world went white and sparkly again and my head felt like it was coming unstuck from my body and I wondered if that was what Mama felt like when they—
I came awake all at once, sitting up and grabbing at whoever it was in front of me. It was an older kid, a girl like me. Her face was dirty and her feet were tied together. I grabbed at her and lost my balance. That was because the floor was moving, just like in the fancy cart, except bouncier, and also my feet were tied together too. She grabbed me back so I wouldn’t fall over. I decided she wasn’t a raider. A raider would’ve let me fall.
“Have you seen Mama?” I asked her, before my brain caught up with my mouth and I remembered she wasn’t this girl’s Mama, just mine. I wanted to say she looks like me, but then I remembered her squashed legs and her kicked-at face and didn’t know if that was true anymore. I wanted to say she always has a big orange work bag with her, except the scav army raiders took it. I didn’t know what I could say that was still true, but then something fell into my head so I said it. “She works for the king in Grayfall.”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know Grayfall,” she said. “I’m from Chooser’s Blindside.”
Instead of answering, she tapped a wall of the cart where there were all these little scratches. More scratches than all my fingers and toes put together. I didn’t understand but I nodded like I did because I didn’t want this new girl to think I was a stupid fucking slag-for-brains and leave me alone to die.
There was a map of the Waste in the king’s castle but it was confusing. A little dot I could cover with my fingertip was supposed to be the whole town Sunrise, and even the huge city Grayfall was so little that if a baby sneezed on it it looked like it’d blow away. Maybe there was a Chooser’s Whatever on there somewhere, but I didn’t remember.
I thought about that for a minute while I looked around. We were in a closed-up little box, bigger than the fancy cart but it didn’t have any windows, just little holes high up on the walls that let in a little bit of light. Mama has a box like this, all folded up in her big orange work bag, made special to fit over a secret-keeper’s head. It’s full of holes that she closes up one by one until the secret-keeper wants to talk. So I knew the holes up high on the cart-walls were for air. Bundles of dried ghostgrass hung in them, just like any window, keeping us safe. Which is kind of funny when you think about how not-safe we really were.
“I’m sorry about your Mama,” the girl was saying. Then, in a voice like she was trying to make me feel better, she said, “They’ll keep her around if they think she’s useful. Is she good at fixing things, or making clothes, or fighting, or finding food? Anything like that?”
I wanted to tell the girl about Mama’s big orange work bag and her long busy days working for the king in Grayfall but I remembered how Jamie told me one time what happened if scav armies caught you and didn’t think you were useful. And I got really scared that if I said Mama’s job was to find people’s secrets then the girl would tell me that that’s not useful enough and if I heard that I didn’t know what I’d do, my whole self would close up like a fist so I couldn’t hear that Mama wasn’t useful enough to keep alive, so I didn’t say anything.
The girl thought for a second and said, “That is, if she wasn’t dead already.” And made a question-face at me.
That one was easy to answer and I shook my head.
“Okay. Good. That’s good.” Now the question-face turned into a thinking-face, and while I was wondering if this girl would get as mad as Mama does when I interrupt her thinking-face, the cart slowed down, then stopped, and quick as a snake the girl spun around and slapped a pile of nasty old blankets in the corner. “Wake up,” she whisper-yelled at the pile.
The pile kind of rustled around for a second.
“Slag you, Nina, help me out here.”
The pile didn’t say anything.
“Whatever,” the girl said. “You’re on your own. I tried.” Then to me, “You saw me try.”
All of a sudden she got a new look, like she could hear something I couldn’t, and one of those quick hands shot out and covered my mouth. “Quiet.”
“But I didn’t say—”
There was a kind of door in the side of the cart, and the girl gave it one sharp scared look and then back to me. She was holding my face in both her hands now, staring at me like Mama did when I had to listen to something really important.
“Quick,” the girl whispered. “Tell me your name.” She was whispering so fast it all squished into one word, TELLMEYOURNAME, but I knew what she meant.
“Aneko,” I whispered back.
“I’m Sam. Okay, Aneko. Listen. Wherever they take you. Wherever they put you. Don’t try to run. You’ll just make it worse. Just do what they say and I’ll find you. I’ll help you. As soon as I can. Promise. Just—”
Then the door came open, and hands reached in and dragged Sam out, and before I ever got to talk to her again she was dead, lying there on the roadside staring up at the rain. I don’t know what killed her, but I knew she was dead because her eyes were open and flies were walking on them and she didn’t blink them away. Just lying there for the flies and ghosts and dogs to chew on. I wanted to help her somehow, I didn’t know how really, maybe close her eyes so her ghost wouldn’t see other ghosts coming at her across the Waste. It’d keep the flies out anyway, with their dirty feet. Her mouth was open a little like she was about to say something. But she didn’t.
You draw stars over dead people’s eyelids so Catchkeep can find them easy. You put something in their mouth so they can cross the dead people’s river and their ghost doesn’t get stuck in the Waste to walk forever. Mama never did those things herself, if one of the king’s secret-keepers died before her work was done. The king had a person who did that. I watched it one time, even though that secret-keeper’s mouth was a mess and he didn’t have any eyelids anymore to draw on, so I’m pretty sure I know how.
But I couldn’t stop and do those things for Sam, because they pushed us right on past her, and I stumbled looking down at her but the kids on the chain in front of me kept walking so I had to get my feet back under me or be dragged. But I held her name in my mouth without saying it. SAM, I thought, HER NAME IS SAM. I closed my mouth on the name and held on tight like the secret-keepers do when they make Mama work so late that she doesn’t have any time to play with me after.
One time I heard a secret-keeper yell at Mama. I’LL TAKE IT TO MY GRAVE, he yelled at her, and there was a kind of spitty sound. Then there was a little space of quiet, and then the secret-keeper made the worst noise I’ve ever heard anybody make and I was happy I was behind the door and couldn’t see what happened to him to make that sound come out of his mouth.
I didn’t know what the secret-keeper wanted to take to his grave, or if he took it there. But it sounded like a brave strong thing to say. HER NAME IS SAM, I thought again. I’LL TAKE IT TO MY GRAVE.
Then I tucked it away in the back of my mind, where I keep the things I have to remember, like holy days and promises and chores. I didn’t want to forget, but I also needed to clear some room in my head for the great big thing that was in there, itching in my mind, pushing everything else away, hot and red like blood.
I had to stay alive long enough for Mama to find me. And then we were going to escape.
Like Mama would say, first things first. I didn’t know where she was. I didn’t even know where I was. She might be a ghost now for all I know. We walked for days. I think maybe the cart broke, but nobody ever said. We got dragged out and chained together, me and Sam and the other girl Nina who was asleep under the blankets, and some other kids from other carts. Mama was nowhere, and if Sam and Nina and everybody had grownups with them before, they were nowhere now too. But then that first night they unchained Sam and took her away and I thought she was going with the grownups because she was almost a grownup really herself but then the next day was when I saw her dead and I looked around for a chain like ours except with grownups on it but I couldn’t find one. Just Waste on both sides, and the cart burning in a big chopped-up pile, and the road going forever in front and behind.
Nina was in front of me on the chain but I couldn’t talk to her. There was somebody else on the chain behind me but I couldn’t turn around to see who it was. If I did either of those things, bad stuff would happen. One time there was a lot of noise somewhere behind me, a grownup yelling and a kid crying, and after a minute of that the chain stopped, and the crying got louder for a second and then the kid started screaming, screaming like some secret-keepers do when they see Mama start to slowly unpack her work bag, and then there was a noise like something thunking into something else, a firewood-chopping kind of sound, and after that the crying stopped, but when the chain started moving again it was harder to walk, like we were dragging something heavy behind us.
After that I didn’t cry, not even quietly. And I made sure to walk fast enough and pull extra hard with every step on that heavy mystery off behind us, because if I didn’t then Nina would have to pull her part and mine too and Mama taught me from little that if we treat other people like tools to be useful to us, then the only thing making us different than the scav armies is that we live in towns and not on the Waste-roads in between.
I tried to keep my mind off of my hurting back and my tired feet and my growling belly and my thirsty thirsty mouth by counting the kids in front of me. But it was hard. We were all walking in a straight line on a straight road so I had to kind of remember which arms and legs and tops of heads belonged to which kid, so if one kid stepped sideways a little or put an arm out, I’d see that part of the kid, and if that happened enough times with enough different kids, I could have some kind of count. I counted five separate kids plus Nina and over the long day I double-checked and even triple-checked my count but when we finally stopped at sundown and they sat us in a circle with a raider guarding us I saw I was wrong. There were eight kids in front of me, and another eleven behind, ten alive and one dead, just lying there all dirty from the road with a horrible huge split in his head. There were other groups of people on chains, farther off, and a bunch of raiders in a big group beyond. I did see two chains of grownups, but no Mama.
That made me remember Sam, who looked littler and not so strong now that she was dead. And it made me think of the kid who couldn’t walk and was now lying on his face in his spot in the circle, and those two thoughts kind of joined up and started walking toward another thought about Mama and how she couldn’t walk because the cart had landed on her legs, and I yelled at those thoughts in my head to SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP, until they went away somewhere else and I could be smart again and ANALYZE MY SITUATION like Mama would tell me to do.
Us kids had to sit really still because two raiders were circling behind us, round and round, like the circle of kids was a planet and the raiders were orbiting moons. ORBITING means going-around, which is what the raiders were doing. Going around with their weapons in their hands, making sure we didn’t do anything bad.
We weren’t allowed to talk, of course. There was a boy next to me, on the not-Nina side, and it was weird to think he’d been walking behind me this whole time and I didn’t see his face at all until now. This boy tried to ask for water and the raider passing behind him swung her weapon down and smashed him in the cheek without even slowing down. Her weapon was some kind of heavy stick or club with sharp things sticking out of it, and the boy put his hand to his cheek and pulled it away all bloody and started screaming. That brought more raiders, and one of them started yelling at the one with the stick, and then she went away and the new raiders unchained the screaming boy and dragged him off into the dark and came back later without him.
They had to feed the rest of us so we could walk tomorrow. There was a big raider argument about that. Some of them didn’t want to feed us, said there were still three days hard march to Last Chance, whatever that was, and then I didn’t listen anymore because my whole mind was full of THREE DAYS HARD MARCH and I knew, just knew, that my feet could never walk that far, I’d end up like the dead boy with the inside-out head and never see Mama again.
But when they were done arguing they fed us. Not a lot. Each kid got one little strip of weird dried meat and one little broken-off piece of stale flatbread and three tiny dried berries, so small and hard that I couldn’t even really chew them, they just got stuck between my teeth.
We had to eat the dried meat first and fast because if we took too long the salt in it would draw ghosts down on us from as soon as they took it out of its ghostgrass bag. One time Mama told me that the Grayfall king’s first torturer used to sprinkle salt around his secret-keepers and let the Waste-ghosts at them bit by bit, but Mama never did that. She said it was lazy, and sloppy, and cruel. I never knew if she meant cruel to the secret-keepers or the ghosts.
We also got two sips of nasty water from a bottle the scav army raiders passed around. An older girl tried to take more water. I don’t think she could stop herself, she got that water to her mouth and her mouth kept moving all on its own to take more. So the raider behind her reached down, took the bottle, then stepped in front of her and kicked her in the stomach so she threw up the water and tiny bit of food. The raider left and the girl looked down at the throwup. She looked like she was thinking about something, probably THREE DAYS HARD MARCH, because she picked the throwup meat and berries off the ground like a dog and ate them while we all stared. It was really hard not to make any noise or say anything while she was doing that, but I didn’t want to have to choose between eating my own throwup or dying on the Waste-road from being too weak to walk, so I locked my mouth like Mama’s work bag and kept it locked.
After that was sleeptime. Just there on the ground, which I thought would be fun before I tried it but then when I did it wasn’t fun at all, it was cold and the ground was hard and I had to pee. The raiders had made a fire but it was far away by where they slept and didn’t warm us kids up even a little. I wanted my pillow and blanket and most of all I wanted Mama. I tried to close my eyes and count big numbers until I fell asleep but Nina was next to me sniffling, not letting herself cry, so I whispered to her COME CLOSER SO WE CAN STAY WARM but then she just sniffled into my hair instead and you can’t fall asleep with somebody doing that no matter how tired you are. So I scooted away and rolled over and something in my pocket went squish.
I pretended to fall asleep so the raiders wouldn’t watch me, but really I was spying on them out of the tiniest opening in my eyes. After a long time one of them said I’M FREEZING MY BALLS OFF, LET’S GET OUT OF HERE and the other one kind of swept a look across us kids and said WELL THEY’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE, and then I closed my eyes quick while the raider stepped over me, and I could hear them take a couple steps away, but then the first one stopped and said LOOK, MAYBE WE SHOULD JUST and the other one said THEN STAY, I’M GOING OVER THERE and their footsteps crunched away over the ashy Waste dirt toward the fire and when I opened my eyes again they were gone.
So I snuck my hand down to my pocket, really slow and quiet, and there was the blackberry pastry from the king’s castle, all gummed together and mushed into the cloth of the pocket. But it was food, so I scooped it out in little slow secret bits on my fingers and ate it. It tasted like treasure. I felt bad about not sharing with Nina, but if I shared with her then all the kids would want some, and they’d be noisy and the raiders would come back and drag me away into the darkness or kill me right here on the ground.
When I couldn’t scrape any more crumbs and fruit goo out of my pocket, I licked my fingers as quiet as I could, then licked the crumbs from around my lips and ate them carefully, one by one. I couldn’t let the raiders smell the sweetness on me, and I wanted every speck of that food-energy to go to my walking feet, my seeing eyes. I still had lots farther to go.
The raiders were wrong. It was FOUR DAYS HARD MARCH to Last Chance, not THREE. Well, THREE plus ONE where we had to stop right where we were on the road and wait for a storm to blow over. It took all day, which was good for me because my feet hurt so much that I don’t know if I could’ve walked on them even if all the scav armies in the whole wide Waste were chasing me, and bad for me because the extra day meant we ran out of food before we got to where they were taking us.
They put us all together while the storm was going over, and told us to keep our heads down and close our eyes and they tied pieces of cloth over our noses and eyes to keep the ash and dust out, and told us to shut up and go to sleep if we know what’s good for us.
But there’s no sleeping in a Waste-storm, at least not for me. It’s too loud and too windy and every time you breathe you can feel some Waste sneaking into your nose and mouth so you sneeze out black gunk for days.
I tried to open my eyes just a little to see if I could see Mama anywhere, which was a mistake. Waste-ash flew into my eyes as soon as I opened them and I couldn’t even wipe it back out because my hands were covered with it too. My eyes were too dried out to cry the ash away so I just squeezed them super tight so it wouldn’t hurt as much and after a while I guess I fell asleep because I saw Mama walking toward me, no smashed legs, no chains, so I knew it was a dream and I woke up.
The day after that we ran out of food, and the day after that we arrived at the scav army town Last Chance, and by that time there were only twelve kids left on my chain plus me, and they put us straight to work.
Here’s what Last Chance is NOT like: Sunrise. Grayfall. Any kind of town. It doesn’t even have houses, not really, just tents and carts all shoved together in a kind of messy townish shape. It has chickens running around but no kids playing. It has dogs to pull the carts but no goats for milk. There’s not even a garden, which is the number-one important thing for a town to have, Mama says, because people get sick if they don’t have green growing things to eat, their bodies don’t work right and they die, just like what happened with Jamie’s big brother and his friends who went out to draw a map of the Waste past the mountains and got lost from first-apples day to second snow.
Also Last Chance doesn’t have old Before-magic giants like Sunrise. That makes sense. I don’t know what there is in Last Chance that the giants would want to protect.
Here’s what Last Chance DOES have: Raiders. Lots of raiders. Kids on chains like me and Nina. Nothing fun to do ever. Waste-ash in the air, always. Work.
My work gang is me and the rest of the kids on my chain. It’s the same chain, just with gaps in it now where the other kids were when they were alive. There were two other chains of kids in my group, and other chains of kids already there working. They have grownups too, but they don’t do the same work as us. They do stuff like fixing and cooking and some of them get taken into the scav army as fighters and finders and some of them just disappear.
Me and Nina and the rest of our chain, our job is digging. We all have digging-sticks, but there are only two shovels, so we have to take turns with them. We’re supposed to dig around in some old ruins and put the stuff we find into a cart. We’re looking for any Before-stuff we can find there. Broken relics, fossils, whatever.
Sometimes our SUPERVISOR, which means the raider who’s boss of our chain, takes one of us kids off the chain and sends us into some little gap between ruin-stuff where a grownup won’t fit. Sometimes it’s because the SUPERVISOR saw something interesting in under the ruin-stuff and sometimes I think he’s just a bad guesser about what spots are lucky because kids usually come out of there holding the same digging-stick they went in with and that only, no ruin-treasure, no old Before-magic, no nothing.
Nina gets sent in more than me because she isn’t scared of the dark or tight places so she never cries going into the caves. Plus one time she found a pretty green glass ball that made the SUPERVISOR happy because it was top-shelf ruin-treasure even though it had white scratches all over it like a spider web. I don’t think that’s fair because how am I supposed to find top-shelf ruin-treasure if the SUPERVISOR always sends her in instead of me?
Nina’s chain-name is THREE, because she’s the third kid on the chain now. My chain-name is FOUR.
The first few days of this new work were really hard, and my whole body was tired and hurting the whole time, and I was always hungry and thirsty but the SUPERVISOR said YOU’LL EAT WHEN THIS SECTOR IS CLEARED, which I think means never because the only thing we got was more of the stale flatbread stuff, a piece the size of my hand that was all the food I ate the whole day.
On day four or maybe five all the kids were too tired and hungry to dig. We had to try anyway but it was slow and hard and all we found was two little pieces of good metal and some tiny bits of glass and a few old bone-pieces and a tooth, and then EIGHT went into a ruin-stuff cave with his digging-stick and fell asleep or fainted so me and TWO had to reach in and drag him out by the feet.
That day it was raining and the kids were crying and the SUPERVISOR pointed at Nina and pointed at the ruin-stuff cave and tilted his head quick like HURRY UP, like words were too good to waste on Nina. That made me mad. Nina was sick, she coughed all day every day, and she wasn’t strong enough anymore to dig anything, and when the SUPERVISOR pointed at her she stood there shaking her head and quiet-crying and shivering like she was cold even though it was a hot day. So when the SUPERVISOR started moving toward Nina with a face like Did You Just Say No To Me, right for that one second I forgot how scared I was of the SUPERVISOR’s hitting-stick and I kind of scrunched myself down like a kid who could fit in a ruin-stuff cave no problem and I said I’LL GO.
The SUPERVISOR gave me a kind of up-down look, then looked along the chain at the other kids, then back to me. Then he shrugged and took me off the chain and I went in.
It was my first time actually inside a ruin-stuff cave so I didn’t know what I’d see. From the outside the ruin-caves looked more like big piles of Waste-ash with pieces of junk kind of spiking up out of it, which is how you know it’s ruins and not just a place where lots of Waste-ash has been pushed all up together by the wind.
Inside was weird, but nice. The best part was the quiet. You go in there and the whole world around you kind of stops, and you keep moving inside the stopped bubble of it, all the Before-stuff around you, the plastic and metal and bricks and things, but the Waste’s still under your feet and dusting all over everything, which is weird because the songkeeper says that in the Before the earth used to be green, not just in gardens like the one we have in Sunrise but everywhere.
So you’re kind of in both places, the Before and the now, and also not in either one of them really, and the sun shines down on you through the gaps in the ceiling, and it’s the same sun Before as now, which makes my head feel weird to think about.
I crawled in and then kept crawling for a little ways, farther than EIGHT went I guess because I squeezed and squirmed and got in too far for anyone to reach me. And then I kept crawling. Everybody knew you shouldn’t go too far in because the ceiling is just made up of piled junk and it could fall on your head any second and that would be the end of you. But I knew if I came out of there without any ruin-treasure then the SUPERVISOR wouldn’t send me back in again and in there in the quiet was way better than out there in the yelling and hitting and wind. I decided I’d find something really extra great so the SUPERVISOR would say ANEKO FINDS THE BEST RUIN-TREASURE, I WILL SEND HER IN EVERY DAY FOREVER AND THE SICK KIDS LIKE NINA WON’T HAVE TO GO IN ANYMORE. I mean I know he’d say THREE instead of NINA and FOUR instead of ANEKO but that was okay as long as my plan worked, because when I looked at Nina’s coughing sick face all I could think about was Sam’s swollen dead face and it made me sadder than I’ve ever been in my whole life but also so mad my eyes felt like fire.
I was going to outsmart the SUPERVISOR like Mama outsmarts me every time we play What Am I? And this pile of Before-junk was going to spit out some top-shelf ruin-treasure that would help me do it.
But first I had to find some. All us kids had bags tied to our waists where we were supposed to put whatever we found. Anything that was Before-stuff, the SUPERVISOR wanted. Anything old. The best thing my chain ever found was yesterday when SEVEN found the edge of a big metal box and we all dug it out together and the SUPERVISOR was so excited he took a shovel and started digging himself, but we dug out the lid or maybe door of the box but nobody could figure out how to open it and it was too heavy to move, so the SUPERVISOR took out one of those red strips of fabric that get tied around things that are too big for people to move by themselves without a cart and dogs. But there was nothing on the box to tie it to and the Waste was already blowing ash back over top of the whole thing anyway so the SUPERVISOR hit SEVEN for wasting his time and told us all to get back to work or else.
Now this was my one and only chance to do better. The tunnels through a ruins-cave are made by luck only, just the way the stuff fell when the Before-buildings came down. Where the tunnel started there wasn’t anything left to take, other kids had already gotten there before me. So I decided to keep crawling back into the ruins-cave until I found something great or the SUPERVISOR started yelling.
I crawled back and back until I counted up to forty-two, and then the little tunnel through the broken bricks and stuff got wider where the pieces of stuff fell against each other in a way to leave a sort of little room, the pointy sort-of-ceiling just a bit above my head.
It was brighter this far in. Maybe the storm blew some gaps in the ceiling ash, or some stuff fell down not long ago. Anyway, I could see just fine, which was a nice surprise.
Three sides of the little room were just big piles of broken bricks with some long pieces of metal holding them up. It looked like somebody, somebody big, the Sunrise giants kind of big, took the metal pieces and shoved them into the ground really hard and left the long parts sticking out, but really I knew it was just the way this one Before-building fell. The other side of the little room was a giant-size letter S, taller than the tallest grownup I ever saw, and some long pieces of metal leaned up against the middle part of the S made up the ceiling of the room. I could just make out the top half of the S going on above the metal-pieces ceiling where the sun shone through.
Nobody had been here in a really long time. Maybe never. I could tell that right away. For one thing, Mama taught me to look for footprints and people-marks anywhere I go in the Waste ever, to see if people were there before me, and there weren’t any here. For another thing, there was Before-stuff on the ground of my little room, poking up out of the Waste. Pieces of easy carrying size. Stuff other kids on chains or raiders or whoever would’ve grabbed up way before today.
I didn’t have time to go through all the stuff really carefully. Maybe the SUPERVISOR would be just as happy with lots of sort-of-okay things as he would be with just one EXTRA GREAT one. So I just picked up everything I could as fast as I could. Anything that wasn’t attached to the stuff that was holding up this ruins-cave from falling on my head. Plastic. Metal. Broken pieces of Before-brick, better than the best lake-clay. The dry darkness of the ruins-cave had kept this stuff from rotting in the sun and rain. I didn’t look real close at anything, just shoved it all in my pockets.
“You in there,” the SUPERVISOR yelled from outside. “Hurry up.”
“Found stuff,” I yelled back, fast and breathless, anything before he pulled me out and started hitting and put me back on the chain and sent Nina in instead. One chance. “Just a minute.”
I glanced over my findings. Random nothing scraps of junk. But thanks to my find, the SUPERVISOR would flag my little room as a scavenge-spot, and other kids would be all over it like flies on a dead dog.
I had to do this smart. There was stuff sticking up out of the Waste, so it was an easy guess there was probably more stuff deeper down.
I started poking around with my digging-stick. The Waste was ashy and loose like always, and I could wiggle the pointy end of the stick down into it no problem. Then I could kind of get a piece of metal down in there and use that together with the stick to pull stuff out. I knew not to reach down into the Waste-ash with my bare hands. Too many tiny bits of glass and poky metal, too small to see, but it’d go into you like needles and you’d get an infection. Infection means when stuff gets into your skin that doesn’t belong there and your blood has like a war with the bad stuff inside you and the bad stuff wins and your hand or whatever gets all red and puffy and you get nasty sick until they cut off your hand, and maybe you die anyway.
A little bit down it was hard to dig any deeper. There was something in the way. One time Jamie and I had to help dig new beds in the Sunrise town garden and that was really hard because just underneath the top layer of Waste there’s all the stuff the ash has blown over and covered up, and you have to dig it out. It’s like the Before is right there, sleeping under your feet, snuggled up under an ashy gross blanket that people walk on every day.
But Before-stuff is exactly what I wanted, so I just dug harder, shoving my digging-stick into the ground until it got totally stuck in something underground. I pulled, I pushed it back and forth, but it was stuck, and if I came back out of that ruins-cave with no digging-stick, it was going to be a bad day for me.
I took the piece of metal and tried to dig a hole around where the stick went in. Scooping out the ash was hard because it just kept sliding back down into the hole I was making. So I tried to go under the mystery underground thing instead. Sometimes you could lever up a rock like that, if you get something in under it and push down to lift up the end you can’t see. Jamie’s dad taught us that, when we were out digging for the garden.
The SUPERVISOR was shouting again. “I have to send somebody in after you,” he was yelling, “you both pay.”
“Something’s stuck,” I heard myself yell back, all frozen scared because what was stuck was my digging-stick and not some piece of ruin-treasure that would save me from the hitting. Then, making the lie even worse, I yelled, “I can get it, I just need a few minutes is all.”
The SUPERVISOR went quiet again. I didn’t know if he was sending someone in, or who it would be, or how I would keep them from telling the SUPERVISOR about my lie. But the SUPERVISOR couldn’t fit back here, and I knew he was scared to come in under that huge pile of ruin-stuff himself. All the raiders were. Nina said that was the whole reason us kids were here doing their scav army work for them, because we’re expendable, which means nobody cared if we got crushed like bugs under all of this.
So I wiggled the metal piece in as far as I could and leaned on it. Then, while I was still leaning on it, I took another piece of metal and dug around my guess of the shape of the underground thing I couldn’t see. It felt round and smooth, like an egg bigger than my head. That was disappointing because round and smooth meant rock, and the SUPERVISOR wasn’t going to care about that, even if rocks were actually even older than the other Before-stuff, like every little knows.
But . . . how do you get a digging-stick stuck in a rock?
I did my best to get the hole dug around the maybe-rock and then I grabbed the digging-stick and pulled with every drop of my strength.
It didn’t move.
I pulled harder. I pulled with muscles I didn’t even know I had until I lost my grip and my balance and fell over backwards. It hurt, but I stayed quiet so the SUPERVISOR wouldn’t hear.
The stick still hadn’t moved. It was poking up out of the ground exactly how I’d left it.
I started feeling myself getting mad. Really mad. The kind of mad Mama always tells me not to get, because it’s not productive. Productive means being able to do your best at something because you’re not too busy being so mad that you can’t think right and you want to kick everything instead.
But Mama wasn’t here to tell me to take my calm-down breaths, so before I could stop myself I kicked the stuck-out part of the digging-stick as hard as I could.
And it moved.
Quick as I could, I jammed the piece of metal down in beside where I guessed the edge of the thing to end, fast before the ash could fill the hole back in. Then I kind of pushed the metal up and down with my foot while pulling the stick up and sideways the other way with both hands and praying to the One Who Got Away for strength and silence and the SUPERVISOR leaving me alone a little while longer.
It felt like pulling up a big old corpseroot out of new garden dirt, except even tighter stuck. I got my feet in a better position and dug in with my heels and fought that piece of Waste for my digging-stick and whatever dumb thing it was stuck to.
Deep under my feet, I felt something give way. There was a soft pop, so quiet I felt it more than heard it, and then the stick flew out in my hands, raining dirt and ash and those tiny sharp bits of Waste-stuff all over, and I shut my eyes.
When the stuff stopped raining down, I carefully wiped around my eyes.
Then I opened them and almost screamed.
Stuck to the end of my digging-stick was a head. A big, hard, made-of-Before-stuff head. Like the Sunrise giants, but way way smaller, more the size of like a big round bucket. Maybe it was metal, maybe plastic. Sometimes with Before-stuff it was hard to know for sure. It wasn’t very heavy but it felt really strong, like if my head was made of this stuff, the SUPERVISOR’s hitting-stick would feel like the tiniest mosquito booping against it, not bothering me even a little.
I waited for a ghost to come out of it and devour the salt from my bones. Devour means eat every last bit, like Mama tells me to do with my dinner. But no ghosts did. There was just a skull, or the little pieces left from one. I pocketed a tooth for remembrance, which means asking the Chooser to be nice to the dead. I left the rest of the skull-pieces to the Waste.
Every little knows about the bones in the earth. People bones and plastic bones and metal bones of Before-stuff long long dead and extinct, which means not just your regular dead but all your kind dead forever. Bones and stories are all we have left of the mystery people Before and their Before-magic, their metal crab-shells and bird-wings and broken dead weapons, also extinct. These things are called FOSSILS, which means bones and relics that are older than anything.
I knew all this stuff since forever. Mama taught me, Jamie’s dad taught me, the Sunrise songkeeper and the Grayfall songkeeper taught every little in their towns. But apart from the Sunrise giants this was my first time seeing any whole unbroken fossil close enough to touch. Usually it was just little pieces, and the songkeepers kept them in special hands-off boxes and only brought them out for stories.
The dirt shook off of the fossil-head no problem. Underneath it was shiny and black and empty inside, with a kind of little almost-black window on the front that looked like something part plastic, part glass. The window-thing was broken on one side, and that’s where the digging-stick had gotten stuck, in that hole. The bottom edge of the head wasn’t smooth, there were all these in-and-out pieces that made it look like it was supposed to lock onto something else, the way some of Mama’s work tools went together to make a whole new more complicated thing. Those were priceless Before-relics, given to Mama by the Grayfall king from his own treasure-room. The Before-magic ran through them and made them still work, as long as Mama made sure to set them out in the sunshine when she was done with them. I wasn’t allowed to touch them ever. Not even when they were just sitting there in the sun waiting for the magic to come back.
I thought about that while I wiggled the stick out of the little window on the head. Easy now that I could see how it was stuck. I wiped the shiny head on my sleeve and put it on my head like a hat, waiting for the Before-magic to go smashing through me like a storm.
The fossil-head was too big for me. It probably could have fit the SUPERVISOR, or Mama, or maybe even Jamie. On me it wasn’t any kind of hat at all, it went down over my whole face and head and neck and sat perched on my shoulders. It was like what the Grayfall kingsguard wear on their heads to protect them from raiders and bears and whatever, except way way better, because it covered my whole head and not just the top of it.
For a five-count I held my breath, waiting to see what it would do to me. Would the Before-magic of it get into me like an infection? Would it turn me into a Before-person, part metal and part meat? Would it mistake me for one of them and kill me dead extinct? I pictured it squeezing tighter and tighter, popping my head like a grape.
But nothing happened. It was a cold dead fossil and couldn’t hurt me, only help. I knew what would happen if I gave this thing I found to the SUPERVISOR. This was my top-shelf ruin-treasure, a Before-people mystery fossil, and there wouldn’t be any more hitting after I gave it to him. It would keep me safe. At least for a little while. Long enough to—
Suddenly I heard a weird little surprised noise behind me. I turned and there was Nina. Her mouth was open and she was making huge eyes at the fossil-head.
She looked like she was about to start yelling so I took it off real quick so she would know it was just me underneath. At the same time I took a step back. Nina even being here was messing up my whole plan. She was bigger than me and probably stronger. What if she took the head back to the SUPERVISOR instead of me and got credit for my find? Then I’d get hit and she’d get sent into the ruin-caves tomorrow instead of me.
“It’s mine,” I whispered, keeping my voice quiet so nobody outside the ruin-cave would hear. “I found it.”
I didn’t know if Nina heard me either. She was still staring, not saying anything. She looked like she forgot how to talk. Like a secret-keeper after a long day with Mama and her work bag.
“Promise you won’t tell,” I demanded, as fierce as I could while still whispering.
Nina blinked and stared at me. It was the first time she was looking at me and not the head. She was giving me a look like you give a little who keeps eating rainstealer flowers, forgetting that something so pretty can still make you so sick.
“Tell?” she whispered back at me, and her voice matched her face. It was a Don’t Be Stupid, Little voice, and it made my hands curl into fists before I could stop them, because for one thing she wasn’t THAT much bigger than me, and for another thing, what belonged in this ruin-cave was Finder of Before-Treasure Aneko FOUR and her Before-treasure find and not Nina THREE Finder of Nothing.
“Relax,” she was saying. “Telling that slag-brain is the last thing we’re going to do.”
“We’re going to find the rest of it.”
That filled my whole head with questions. What was Nina talking about? What was I going to give the SUPERVISOR if I didn’t give him this fossil? What if we had to come out and the storms blew ash over the ruin-cave and we couldn’t find it again? What would the SUPERVISOR do to us if he heard Nina calling him a slag-brain?
And—wait. The rest of what?
“It’s mine,” I said again instead, because all those questions got stuck in my head and couldn’t all squeeze out my mouth together. I wanted to take another step back but there wasn’t any room.
“You don’t even know what it is,” Nina hissed at me.
“It’s a fossil,” I hissed back. “It’s Before-people bones from the earth and it’s MINE.”
Nina gave me a sigh like You Really Are A Very Stupid Little Aren’t You. Then she turned back to the tunnel out. I was scared she was going out there to tell on me, but she just shouted, “There’s something here. I’m helping FOUR dig it out. Don’t send anybody else in, the ceiling is shaking and I think it might come down.”
I looked at the ceiling when she said that. Then I realized she was lying and wanted to kick myself for falling for it. Then I wanted to kick myself even harder for not thinking of the lie by myself before the SUPERVISOR sent Nina in after me.
But Nina didn’t notice. She’d already gone over to the hole I’d made in the Waste and started digging.
“Back in my town my dad was songkeeper,” Nina told me all in a rush while she dug. Her voice was clear and soft like Mama’s used to get when I had to Shut Up And Listen Right Now, so I put away my mad mood and listened. “You know what that means? Songkeeper?”
Songkeeper means Person Who Tells The Important Stories. Every little knows that from walking. So I nodded.
“My dad had a relic like this,” Nina said. “But not a head. An arm. Made out of this same shiny black Before-stuff. Help me dig.”
Just like that, my mad mood was back. Like she was going to boss me into helping her do something I didn’t even want HER to do in the first place. “I told you. It’s mine.”
“Ragpicker take you. Listen. This is important. The arm-thing? My dad said there was a whole person-shape of it,” Nina said. “Not just the one arm but a whole body. But the arm was the only thing he had enough to trade for. He said somebody used to wear the whole person-shape thing, back in the wars. And whoever wore it, it would protect them.”
“Before-magic,” I told her.
“My dad says Before-magic is just a story for littles,” Nina said, in that nasty know-everything voice I hated. What did I care what she or her stupid dad thought? They weren’t from Sunrise. They were from some dumb town that probably didn’t have any giants or anything. “That,” she said, and she kind of nodded toward the head I’d found, “is a MACHINE. Well, a piece of one. And the rest . . . ”
“The rest what?” I said, but I was looking at the hole in the ground while I said it, and I knew. All at once I could feel the pieces of an idea sliding together, I could feel it prickling in my brain behind my eyes.
I started digging.
It was a lot faster with both of us working. Nina was bigger and stronger than me, and she’d put her sickness and tiredness away someplace where I couldn’t see it anymore. She hadn’t brought a digging-stick, and the Waste was scratching deep lines up her arms, and her hands were bloody and gross and made me kind of sad and scared to look at them, but she didn’t care about any of that. She wanted this Before-thing too much. The wanting moved her body for her while her mind ran off ahead. That happened to secret-keepers sometimes, Mama said. They could peel their minds away clean from the hurt in their bodies. It made Mama’s job a lot harder sometimes, she’d have to work until I was asleep so there was nobody to tell me bedtime stories except the kingsguard, and they never did the voices right.
I helped along with my digging-stick, loosening the ash and junk so Nina could move it away with pieces of metal and her poor nasty messed-up hands. “A little farther,” she kept saying, way down low on the bottom of her voice so I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or to herself or her hands or the Waste or something hidden underneath or what. “Almost there.”
And then I poked in my digging-stick for what felt like the millionth time that day. And this time, instead of the soft tshhh sound of stick into ashy dirt, I heard a kind of clunk.
Nina looked at me, and her face was like learning your favorite story is true.
Together we pulled out a black shiny leg-shape of the stuff, then another. Then a broken-off arm, then a shape kind of like a jacket with one sleeve that was the other arm, except the jacket-shape had a big hole melted straight through the middle, in one side and out the other. That arm’s fist was curled around something that dangled from it, a long dark weird shape that was jagged and smooth at the same time, with a long tube coming out of one end.
That thing fell out into Nina’s hands. She sucked her breath in between her teeth and dropped the thing like it was about to bite her.
When it landed I got a good look at it. It was a Before-people weapon. It was the first one I’d seen that wasn’t broken into pieces or melted into a lump of uselessness. From this one I could see the way you’d hold it, just like in the pictures of the wars Before, the way you’d put one part in one hand and one part in another, and if the strap wasn’t so rotten it would go around your neck like a satchel.
“Ragpicker slag me,” Nina was whispering, under her breath like a prayer. She kept running her hands over the shiny person-shape, like she was scared if she stopped it’d disappear.
Then came the SUPERVISOR’s voice from outside. “You better not be trying anything stupid in there,” he said. “I want to see that ruin-treasure and I want to see it NOW.”
Hearing that voice made me feel like I wanted the Waste to open up and swallow me alive, but Nina got a lid slammed down on whatever was going through her head and just yelled back in this airy voice like nothing: “Just digging still.” Then she whispered to me: “Quick. Help me put it on.”
I gave her a dirty look.
“It won’t fit you,” she whispered.
That was true, and I knew it. I pointed at the jagged-smooth weapon shape. “Then I get that.”
“You don’t know how to use it.”
“Neither do you.”
Nina looked at it, then at me. There was hard wanting in her face, but fair was fair. She nodded.
“Out in one minute or I send another one in after you,” the SUPERVISOR yelled back.
“Oh you don’t want to do that,” Nina shouted, shoving her foot into one of the shiny legs. There was a tiny shake in her voice but it didn’t carry. She got the other leg on and stood up. She looked funny, that skinny body on those huge monster legs. I helped her balance. “Stuff falling out of the ceiling everywhere. Lose three kids instead of two, and all the ruin-treasure besides.” She took a piece of metal and threw it clanging against that giant letter S. “Ah! Chooser save me. That one was CLOSE.”
Silence from outside. For the first time ever I had this thought: what if the SUPERVISOR was scared of somebody too? Who yelled at him and hit him when we came back from the ruin-fields with no treasure?
I stared at Nina. She winked.
Then she pulled the jacket-shape on over her head. It went down over her waist and hips and butt and hung real loose on her, like how Jamie’s old nettle-yarn sweater fits me. She got her arm through the one attached arm, then picked up the other one and held it out for me to hold. She dug around inside it like she was looking for something, and I remembered how she’d said her songkeeper dad had a Before-relic fossil arm just like this one. So I didn’t say anything, just held it and waited, and after a second she pulled out a long thin tube with a much thinner pointy thing on the end of it like a sewing needle.
“Help me put this in my arm,” she said, and pointed with one hard plasticky finger to the soft inside of her other elbow. “Here.”
“Why?” I asked, and my voice was shaking like a scared-of-the-dark little, but I couldn’t help it. There was a cold feeling in my belly suddenly, like the Before-magic was a bucket of ice water I’d swallowed.
“Because it’s in the old stories,” she said, “and now it’s here.” Her voice was shaking too, but not like she was scared, more like something amazing was about to happen, like a party just for her. “It’ll help us if we let it.”
“How do you know that?” I asked, hating how small and scared my voice sounded.
She looked at me strangely. “I don’t.”
I thought about Mama and Jaime and the Sunrise giants and Sam with the flies in her eyes, and I knew what I had to do. “Okay, Nina,” I told her, and I slid the needle in, and she watched me do it and didn’t look away, and I think it’s the bravest thing I ever saw.
After that I helped her kind of push-pull the arm on like a cold, hard, too-big glove. Last, she pulled the fossil-head down over her head and I couldn’t see her face anymore.
For a ten-count nothing happened. Then the shiny black Before-stuff started humming. Then, slowly, slowly, the arms and legs and head started locking themselves onto the jacket-body with these gentle little whispering sounds.
“Nina?” I asked, because I couldn’t trust my eyes to tell me what I was looking at.
“It’s not me,” her voice came from inside the fossil-head, shaking with more scared than mad now. “I’m not doing it, Aneko, it isn’t me.”
Then suddenly her voice changed, went up all high and squeaky with surprise: “There’s words on it, there are like words and shapes on the window where I look, I think it’s trying to talk to me,” and I had no idea what she was talking about and didn’t ask, I was too busy staring at the sudden shiny dark shape that used to be Nina, before she got swallowed up by the Before-magic weirdness.
I picked up the Before-relic weapon. It was cold and slick in my hands like a snake. There was a place on it that looked like the shape of a hand, and I had to stretch my fingers hurting wide to fit. The hand-shape started glowing bright bright blue, the same color as the very bottom of a candle-flame, or the stars on a cold night, or the very first scorchweed flowers in springtime.
I had to push away so many questions. What would happen to us when we got out there? Would Nina even fit out of the ruin-cave with that stuff on? How long would it keep working? Could I find Mama out there? Was she even still alive to find?
“Time’s up,” the SUPERVISOR yelled. “Get out or I burn you out.”
Nina turned her shiny black fossil-head to me. Through the little hole in the little window it was hard to see her face. She looked like a Before-people ghost come alive, like a Sunrise giant and all its old old magic shrunk down to person-size.
She nodded once to me. I nodded back.
“Coming,” she called.
Nicole Kornher-Stace lives in New Paltz, NY. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Clockwork Phoenix 3 and 4, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, Zombies: More Recent Dead, Apex, and Fantasy Magazine. She is the author of Desideria, The Winter Triptych, and the Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp.